Do Those Advertised Exercise Programs Work?

Miriam tells me that the men in her office have been doing that pre-packaged structured weight training program that you've seen marketed on television and heard about in the office, and now they've hurt their shoulders.  John suggested that I write about this same program.  My daughter Megan asked if I knew about the high intensity workout videos that they're doing in her dorm. 

There are many structured program packages sold today, they pretty much tell you what to do every, give you a log to track progress, and promise great results.  I can't name the programs, but these comments inspired this report.

Research has shown that at every fitness level, following a structured exercise program and tracking progress works better than doing an unstructured workout.  XpressLine at NYSC is an example of a good structured program for beginners, and is actually proven by research to be effective.  You'll also get similar benefits from most exercise videos, books, classes or working with a trainer.  Why?

Following a structured program does a better job of keeping you consistent.  (It works the same way with diets too - food logs and weigh-ins work!) In most cases, the differences between programs can be less important than the degree to which you actually follow a program.  It helps if the program is interesting and fun, if you can get a friend involved, and if there is variety and progression of difficulty. 

BUT...The questions with these programs are whether the program is right for you.

The pre-packaged structured programs generally don't do two things that can be very important to make them the right program for you: 
  1. they don't help decide which exercises are right or wrong for you based on assessment of your posture, movement patterns, and any muscle imbalances or injuries;
  2. they don't coach form, and help modify and progress or regress exercises so that they are right for you.
Megan's intense workout videos involve mostly calisthenics, some plyometrics, and constant movement.  There is some concern about proper exercise form, but college age kids can take a lot of physical punishment.  Since the exercises don't involve weights and are mainly familiar movements, they're not quite as risky as some of the other programs.  For people in their 30s, 40s, 50s and above...you need to be a lot more careful.
The program Miriam and John asked about uses weights, along with other exercises.  Miriam's co-workers probably have the typical "Wall Street roll," rounded and possibly elevated shoulders from working at a computer all day.  A program that is heavily into exercises like overhead presses, lateral raises and shrugs is probably not appropriate and could cause pain or injuries.  

Structured programs focus on a general fitness goal, but everyone does the same exercises. Videos and classes have the added benefit of someone leading and motivating you.  In classes, the group exercise instructor can also help with form and some group exercise instructors may be able to help with exercise selection (note: unlike physical therapy or most personal training certifications, the group exercise certification does not include assessment-based exercise prescription). 

Some pre-packaged programs make a big deal about muscle confusion.  They're right.  Research shows that your body adapts to an exercise program within about 4 weeks, and you hit a plateau.  (We call it the SAID principle, specific adaptation to imposed demand).  So most programs "periodize," meaning they change the program about every 4 weeks.  A good example would be going from two sets of 15 reps at a moderate weight to three sets of 10 at heavier weight.  There are different types of periodization, depending on goals and frequency of exercise.  Is muscle confusion a breakthrough?  Hardly.  They've done a good job of packaging a long-established technique called "undulating periodization."  That means you alternate between several different workouts and change as often as each exercise session.

Is it really better to do different exercises in each workout?  Arguably not.  The benefits are that it may keep the workout interesting and your body doesn't adapt to the training stimulus - however, research shows that the adaptation takes about four weeks.  The disadvantages of frequent changes:
  • an increase in  delayed onset muscle soreness and
  • difficulty in perfecting form and technique.  
In some ways, delayed onset muscle soreness is a marketer's dream.  Many people will think that because they feel sore for a few days they must have gotten a really good workout.  It just isn't so.  Delayed onset muscle soreness is experienced because of the change in routine, not because of more or less effectiveness.   Changing your routine too frequently is probably overkill.  You don't need to experience constant soreness to get results.

Very few of us buy a suit off the rack and have it fit us perfectly, shouldn't we make sure our exercise program is well tailored to us?  In some ways, you can think of the assessment at the start of your fitness program as getting measured for a bespoke suit.  However, a flight from India or a few long, tense days at work can also have a profound short term affect that you might want to address in your programming. 

Common postural and movement impairments seen among office workers are rounded and elevated shoulders, anterior pelvic tilt (tight hips/protruding buttocks), knock knees, and turned out feet.  Sometimes these can be noticed on sight, sometimes they require advanced movement screening to bring them out - in other words, they come out when you perform movements or exercises.  If your posture and movement patterns aren't right, you can experience injuries, ranging from tendonitis to sprains and tears to arthritis. In addition, you can't generate force properly so you won't be able to perform as well in working out or sports.  There are some exercises that you just cannot do with proper form - eliminate them from your program and try to improve your posture and movement patterns with corrective exercises.

Want to learn more about personalizing your program?  Visit the Mini-Assessment page at caryraffle.com for a brief overview of common postural and movement issues, exercises to avoid, and corrective exercises. 

Exercise progression refers to continually overloading the body's system by changing the exercise stimulus (see muscle confusion above). Increasing weight and/or repetitions is one way to progress, but shouldn't be the only way.  To truly overload the body and experience continued improvement in your fitness, also challenge your balance and stability.   Visit the Training Programs page at caryraffle.com for a progression of three mini programs for any fitness level. Additional progressions might include dynamic movement with weight and explosive power (Plyometrics) if appropriate.  Regression refers to reducing that overload; there is plenty of room for fine-tuning when it comes to exercise programming.

Progression and periodization can also help avoid repetitive motion injuries.  Exercises done over and over again in the same way with similar equipment become like working the assembly line in a factory.

People working on their own with structured programs, videos, or classes often either don't progress soon enough, or progress too quickly and don't workout with proper form.  I've been in the awkward position of group exercise instructor with that person - call them confident, cocky, or showoff - performing the most advanced version of the exercise I'm leading with horrible form.  Don't be that person. Monitor yourself strictly, make sure that the postural and movement problems noted above don't sneak into your workout as you progress.

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